Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Interview: Daniel Griffin

www.danielgriffin.ca

Globe and Mail profile

Please tell us about your interest in the short story by


(a) telling us a bit about your recent collection (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular story or passage that's a favorite?)

I wrote the stories in Stopping for Strangers over the past ten years or so which is about the same amount of time I've been a parent--my eldest daughter just turned eleven. As you might expect, during that time, I often found myself writing about family. If there's a unifying theme to Stopping for Strangers that's probably it: Most of the stories in this book touch on family in some way.

I think the approach I take to short stories is another reason family comes up so often in this collection. Conflict and tension drive stories forward. Time and again I found myself using family relationships as a way to ratchet up the tension and magnify the conflict, increase what's at stake in the story. After all, these are the ties that bind us most closely. A family's fault lines—and in this I include husbands and wives—have always been more interesting to me than the fault lines between friends or lovers.

It's hard to pick a favourite story, but I think of "The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale" as the story that got the book published, so it has a place close to my heart. The truth, of course, is that “Cale” really only got the editor's attention, the entire manuscript is what got the book published. Getting noticed though is an important first step. After I met Andrew Steinmetz at the Writers Trust Awards in 2008, he read the story, liked it, and contacted me about the collection. It took a while to sort out the details, but that's ultimately what brought the book to Vehicule.

(b) recommending a short story or collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

I just went up and looked at my shelves, and I've got to say it's hard to just pick one book to talk about. It's tempting to mention something by Raymond Carver--both because I admire his work and because some reviews have recently compared Stopping for Strangers to Carver's writing; however, I'm not going to do that today.

VS Pritchett is another favourite of mine and I'll recommend him in part because I think on this side of the Atlantic he doesn't get all the attention he deserves. A good book to start with is the volume of Selected Stories published in '78 which includes some of the best stories from collections he published in the 60s and 70s. It was the first book of his I read. The unadorned prose and the clarity of voice held me.

While I didn't particularly identify with the 1960s England he wrote about, he brought a truly compassionate and unflinching eye to commonplace characters and situations. I couldn't put the book down. As a story writer, I think he's up there with Ernest Hemingway.

(c) reflecting on the 21st century and the short story: Are they a good match (and why)?

I love this question. But I'm also struggling: we're in a time of amazing acceleration and change; it's hard to predict ten years let alone a century. One trend I see is that people's disposable time is getting shorter and also getting chopped up. All these time saving devices, gadgets and appliances and we're busier than ever before.

I often hear people say the short story is perfect, I can read it in one sitting. Our ability to now deliver books on portable electronic devices from iphones to Kindles helps too. It can make the short story and short story collections easy companions for commuters or people who find them selves with blips of time here and there.

With that said, another interesting trend is the decline in our attention spans. I've been watching some HBO TV series lately and it's the crack cocaine of video. Now when I sit down to watch a quiet French coming of age film, I don't think I've got the patience I used to have. What does that mean for the short story?

I was discussing this with my friend and fellow writer Craig Boyko a while back. He pointed out that a short story actually takes an increased level of attention. Every word counts, they're densely packed works of prose. With a novel you can skip a few pages and still get it. You can't do that with a short story. A public with shortened attention spans isn't a good match for the short story form.

So there you go: two trends, one suggests the next few decades will be good to the short story, the other suggests there's challenges ahead. I'm peaceably on the fence.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fiction #32

Here is new fiction, issue #32:
Submissions now open for #33.

Fiction #32: Lucile Barker

Birther

I could have killed Evan for the boat accident, but part of it was my fault for letting him take out a twelve foot flat bottomed rowing canoe in five foot waves.

For the first few days after the accident, I didn’t want to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I was back in the warm too high waves, the oars under my arms so that they couldn’t float away.

“The seats, the generator, the motor, the cooler,” he moaned to all his neighbours, who could see my increasing lack of sympathy.

I had my own list, including the salmon mousse and the expensive smoked pork hock from the out-of-town deli. And my wallet, driver’s license, health card, my USB stick (which had been backed up on a CD the day before), several absolutely for sure winning lottery and raffle tickets, including one for a rainbow-hued afghan that I had lusted after at the Fergus Truck Show, and business cards with e-mails for people I might never see in the flesh again.

As the week progressed, the list got longer and more expensive. I began to remember why Evan was an ex-husband.

The nightmares became worse and started to mix in with old ones when I had been trapped in my school locker in grade ten. Now I was back in the locker but it was filling up with water and rocking. Maybe it was time to get rid of the water bed.

“Ya wanna come to Cuba this winter?” my best friend, Annabelle, asked.

“Maybe,” I said, ever though I knew I really couldn’t afford it. “But I gotta get a passport.”

There, I had my excuse.

“I will spring for your passport,” Annabelle said. “I got a huge hunk of extra vacation pay.”

“Desperate women,” I said. “Maybe this time we’ll behave.”

Once, long ago, we had gone off on a trip where she had met a writer she introduced me to. Then she met his roommate and we had frittered away twenty years of our lives on them. Some of it had been fun; some nearly tragic.

“I’ll write away for it,” I promised and went to the community center to print the application off the internet.

I looked at it and cursed under my breath. First I would need my birth certificate, and that was a soggy mess somewhere in the bottom of Lake Ontario. I went to another web site and printed off the application for that. This was going to take a while, so maybe the balance on my Mastercard wouldn’t get inflated by a winter trip.

I filled in the birth certificate application and put the passport application aside. I was busy doing other things, like finding out how to load my new USB stick, so I didn’t notice that there seemed to be a delay in the return of the document. The envelope from the Bureau of Statistics came back when the first snow was on the ground. I might not be able to afford new boots, but maybe Cuba was doable.

“Your application is incorrect or incomplete,” the form letter said.

Maybe I had Daddy’s birthday wrong, I thought, and called Mom, who said I had it right, the government was just screwing around because of all the terrorist threats.

I was sure it was collusion between the Post Office and other government departments to make up for the loss of revenue due to the internet.

“I’m going with or without you,” Annabelle threatened when the storms started to hit.

I live above a commercial establishment that repairs small motors that I am allowed to walk through after hours. The other tenants have to trek around the building and go through a semi-paved badly lit alleyway. My landlord has cut me slack. When the doorbell rings after hours and I’m not expecting anyone, I usually ignore it because it’s someone wanting to pick up a re-cored motor that I wouldn’t recognize.

There was a storm and I looked out when the bell went. On the street below was a nasty looking black car, something official. Bad news time. My mother, Evan…

I didn’t bother with shoes, damn the metal shavings from the grinder that were never completely swept up. I fumbled with the two locks on the glass door and two large dark-coated men pushed their way in. They flash ID that wasn’t standard issue and looked around unbelievingly.

“Someone live here?” the bald one asked, the kind of guy who never wears a hat so he can prove how macho he is.

“Apartment behind and I’m upstairs,” I said.

“And you are?” the other one asked. His snow-slicked hair looked dyed or maybe it was just the nasty florescent lights changed the hours of everything.

“Jacqueline Shoshana Pomerantz,” I said and they both jumped. “I didn’t quite catch your names.”

They looked at each other; they hadn’t expected that.

“Is there somewhere we could go?” the bald one asked, not answering my question, gesturing with his head to the door to the stairs.

“Not really,” I said, digging my heels in, and feeling a metal splinter slide in.

“You have ID?” Mr. Clairol asked, getting pushy.

I could see that this was going to turn into a game of good cop, bad cop. I was feeling bipolar enough to be good Jackie, bad Jackie.

“Why?” I asked, pulling out a chair from behind the open-drawered cash register and sitting on it. I might as well be comfortable.

They looked at each other again and then the bald eagle spoke.

“You apply for a birth certificate?” he asked.

I nodded. I wasn’t about the bring back the memory of being in the water, to explain about the waves. I wasn’t going to get out that easy.

“Where’s your old birth certificate?” demanded blackhead.

I tried to hold bad Jackie back.

“Bottom of Lake Ontario,” I said. “Off the island.”

“The birth certificate is government property,” he said. “Destroying it is a crime. Why did you do that?”

Hey, isn’t it the other guy’s turn? I wanted to ask. Good Jackie was getting a workout.

“Boating accident,” I said, and his lip curled in disbelief. “Lost every piece of ID, bank card, charge cards, you name it.”

“Must have been a pain replacing all that stuff,” Baldie said sympathetically.

Bad Jackie had an idea and passed it to good Jackie. I pulled my wallet out of my jeans.

“See, all my stuff was reissued the second week of September,” I said, handing over the picture license and health card. “Heck, I had to memorize a new library card number and change the macro for it on my laptop.”

Baldie seemed to be satisfied but now Blackhead leaned forward. His dripping black hair seemed to slip. Oh, lord, it was a toupee and it was going to tumble off into my lap if he wasn’t careful.

“And why didn’t you get a replacement until now?” he demanded, triumph in every pore.

“Hadn’t realized it was in there, and then I tried,” I said, trying to move away from his drips. “They kept sending back the forms.”

“Because you kept lying on them,” he yelled and I could hear the ballast in the florescent light over me vibrating.

There was a long silence.

“There is no lie on the application,” I said. Now I knew I was good Jackie or I would have decked him.

“Time to take her in and find out who she really is!” Wiggy said to Chrome Dome, surreptitiously adjusting his toupee.

Baldie didn’t answer. He was checking something on a small wireless computer screen.

“Didn’t like your real parents much,” Wiggy said. “That why you put someone else’s name on the forms? Think you could inherit from them?”

I love my mother but I don’t much like her, I wanted to say, bad Jackie thinking the truth even when it was hateful.

“Weren’t around much when I was really little,” I admitted. “I lived with my grandparents a lot. There were my legal guardians because my parents were travelling around in other countries all the time.”

Baldy was looking at the computer screen and gave a deep sigh.

“Can you tell me your grandparents’ names?” he asked.

I did while Blackie glowered. He was growing an eight o’clock shadow both physically and emotionally. Baldy passed him the device. The angry man just shrugged when he read the screen.

“Put up job,” he muttered, and Baldy gave him a look. I had the feeling that they hadn’t been partners for all that long and that they wouldn’t be for much longer.

“I’d advise you to call the toll free number at Statistics and tell them what you just told me,” Baldy said, handing me back all my cards. He looked out at the snow, which was still pounding down. “Lock up when we go,” he advised.

I did, and went back upstairs. I opened the window a crack. The two men were standing beside the car, having a heated discussion that could have melted the snow.

“ – take her in,” insisted Blackie, who was probably as bald as his partner.

“Nope,” said Baldy, fumbling in his overcoat pocket for the door opener. “She had
no idea. And we just opened up a real can of worms for her.”

The car beeped open and then purred off, unlike any vehicle I had ever driven in the snow. The toll-free line didn’t open until eight in the morning. It was a long night, punctuated with dreams of babies being plucked from swamping cradles.

I looked too much like both of my parents to be anyone but theirs. I had always known that they were too tied up in each other for me to be anything but second place.

I called Evan at dawn, watching the snow fall down.

“I don’t get what’s going on,” I wailed.

There was a long pause.

“Your grandfather told me,” he finally said. “They adopted you when you were two. The first time your parents split up.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. How could he know so much and I know so little?

“I’ll be down there in a couple of minutes,” he said, even though the radio had told everyone to stay off the roads. “You can even do the call to the Stats people off my cell.”

The man on the other end of the line was polite and quite understanding.

“There was a legal guardianship change,” I said, giving him Gramma and Grandpa’s
names. “To my grandparents. Would that make a difference?”

“Well, that’s who I’ve got as your parents,” he sighed. “Things were more fluid back then and maybe someone in your family didn’t understand the terminology. Or the ramifications of the legal process. Just print yourself off new forms and put in that information. It’s happened before.”

I was being comforted by a civil servant.

“Wanna go to the beach?” Evan asked. “Call work before I take you there, everything is closed. Except the swans in the snow.”

The pure whiteness, nothing having sullied it…yeah, the beach. I called the office.

“Due to inclement weather, the Centre will be closed today. Please call before your appointment tomorrow or to reschedule-”

The lake was ice, hard. I closed by eyes and I wasn’t in it, fighting waves. Maybe I was over it.

“Let’s go and print those forms,” Evan said. “Post Office will be open.”

He printed, I filled in, and we took them to the southern depot to mail.

“I thought you knew,” he said gently as he dropped the envelope into the shaft that led to a conveyor belt below.

That night I had a dream of legal documents on an assembly line, dwarves passing them along to each other and then roughly stapling the documents to living dolls who cried but didn’t bleed. Then the workshop started to fill with water and I was back in the lake, this time reaching for the papers attached to the dolls, trying to get one for myself. The water was hot and cold; I awoke in a cold sweat and had to take a shower.

The birth certificate finally arrived but I didn’t bother to look at it all that carefully. I didn’t want to know what it said, what lies I had been living with all these years.

“It doesn’t change the fact that we were born in the same delivery room,” I said to Evan.

That was one of the wonderful pieces of family lore over the years and I wanted to keep it alive.

I asked my mother about it gently.

“Just a legal guardianship,” she huffed, and changed the subject. She’s always been good at that. We’ve always let her get away with it.

Like the people who believe that the American president is not a true citizen, my mother and I will each believe what we need to believe about my birth certificate. I know they were married; I’ve seen the pictures of their wedding and when I was brought home from the hospital and the cars in the background give an accurate dateline. But there are other problems. Like trust. Maybe, like the President, I am an outsider. When it comes to my mother, I am ineligible.

*

Lucile Barker is a Toronto poet, writer and activist who has written since swiping her grandmother’s Waterman fountain pen and her mother’s purple ink. Time spent in the corner gave her more writing opportunities. These were augmented in her teenage years by time spent in detention rooms and sitting in the hall outside of the classroom. She may have the world’s largest rejection slip collection. There are no plans for an exhibit of these. She has participated in Nanowrimo for the past seven year. “Birther” is one of the linked stories from the 2011 Nano, Jacqueline Pomerantz had Insomnia Here. Since 1994, she has facilitated The Joy of Writing, which has weekly meetings at the Ralph Thornton Centre, as well as on-line and Facebook members.

Fiction #32: Jon R. Flieger

sorry I drunk textiled you last night again

FUCKIN autocorrect

We are drunk on kerosene and I swallow a Roman candle to impress you. The firebreather.

There. I started on the lie and the image so the truth is okay now. It is buried and you won’t read past the first line. I miss you and it’s alright to say that now. It’s fine. I see your face in patterns. You take shape in the stucco of a ceiling. I read your name in numbers and the static at the edge of the screen. The brain is an architect among wolves. This is a failing, but an intentional one. Human beings learned to read patterns to survive. I will survive you. This is on the nose but that’s okay. Language is for communicating. I will be plain. Call me to tell me you’re unhappy. That you miss me. That you’re sorry you got drunk before you left and kissed me. You have feelings for me even though

But.

Yup.

Only.

Okay. We’re okay.

We’re okay. Sure.

Listen to the dial tone scream never eat again my dogs will be fine. They will swallow my body and someone will come rescue them when no one sees me for a while. This is on the nose. That is a grown ass man wanting to die over you. Precious. You’re my white whale. Wait no. Harpoon imagery.

Nope. Not doing that.

I can drink you out of my brain. I am extra double powerful like that. I can mix kraken and dr. pepper. I can text Hollie that I have invented and swallowed the dr. doom and that I don’t miss you. She will call tomorrow to see if I’m okay.
You were kind of for real last night

And I’ll say nothing is ever for real. And she will lose interest in the conversation. I’m obviously all right and now I’m being boring.

She’ll say look I’m sorry that

And I’ll say nope. Nope not doing that.

And she’ll say but at some point you have to

And I’ll swallow my cell phone.

Go driving and see fire and dead crows eaten by live crows at the sides of roads. This is not metaphor or a pattern this is cannibalism. Buy a new phone and hover thumb over your number. Swallow me down. Language is for communicating. I shouldn’t buy a plane ticket. I should just survive. And yet. Put phone in pocket. Will maybe text you later. Drink kerosene or krakens. Feed the dogs and edit the dictionary settings on my phone. Why not.

*

Jon R. Flieger is from Windsor and now lives in Calgary. He is afraid of bees.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Interview: Matthew Firth

Please tell us about your interest in the short story by

a) telling us a bit about your recent collection (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular story or passage that's a favorite?)


It’s a new short story collection called Shag Carpet Action, published by Vancouver’s Anvil Press: ten stories and a novella.

The novella part is new to me. I’ve never written (successfully, at least) anything longer than a long short story. The book came about the usual way. I write slowly, or maybe sporadically is a better way to put it. I go long periods of time not writing anything. This is fine by me. I like to wait until the engines are firing, rather than try to stoke them to life when they’re not in the mood.

So I wrote this book over about four years. I’m like most small press writers in that I have a day job, family and life outside of writing that eats up my time. I write out of a sense of urgency; when I have time and wherever I can. On the bus. At work at lunch. Early in the morning over a coffee before my kids wake up. That sort of thing. I never have sustained periods to ponder, pick, and scratch. I think things over on the bus, on my bike, maybe on a train if I’m travelling for work, and then lay it down when I have the time.

There is no recurring theme in Shag Carpet Action. Some stories are first-person narratives, others third. Some protagonists are sexually-ponderous 40-something housewives, some are horny teenaged boys, some are truculent, blue-collar workers with drug problems. The shortest story is about 350 words; the novella is 25,000 words. Shag Carpet Action takes readers all over the place. But I’d say the writing style and tone is what links the book, that and the subject matter to some degree.

The tone is bare-knuckled, sparse, urgent and direct. Nothing flowery or wasted. It’s driven by character action and dialogue. The subject matter tends toward the darker pockets of our hearts: to violence, lust, longing, loss, sex, and yearning for some change or some tilt in characters’ lives that will make their lives more bearable and infuse it with some minor joy before that is washed away by something more foreboding and shitty.

I don’t really have a favorite passage or story, although I’ve been getting a kick out of re-reading my story “Greeks” in Shag Carpet Action that I find funny. It’s more humorous than most other parts of the book. Humour is important in my work. It adds light and is important for keeping any type of fiction human and humane. “Greeks” makes me snicker lately. Maybe in this post-holiday mode, humour is more vital than usual right now.

(b) recommending a short story or collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

I’ve read a few really good ones lately: If Only by Peter Stockland is superb. I like it because its characters are truly plausible and Canadian – in a contemporary way, rather than the cliché, surviving-on-the-prairies way. The Snows of Yesteryear by Len Gasparini because of its humour and honesty. Anticipated Results by Dennis E. Bolen because I love his damaged characters. The Mountie at Niagara Falls and Other Brief Stories by Salvatore Difalco because Difalco’s fictional bursts are blazingly insightful, humane and humorous.

Older collections I always go back to and admire: anything by Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Daniel Jones, Dan Fante, Laura Hird, Jim Christy, Dennis Cooper and others.

(b) reflecting on the 21st century and the short story: Are they a good match (and why)?

Yes, of course. I don’t see anything that suggests the short story is endangered. But I also don’t buy into clichés about shorter attention spans and quicker and more abrupt forms of communication (i.e., Twitter and all of that) somehow making short fiction more palatable and popular. Short fiction is as credible a literary art form and expression as any other. It will persist so long as people tell each other stories.

I cannot stand the arrogant perspective some novelists have that short stories are inferior and some sort of warm-up to writing a novel. This is a common sentiment in Canada in particular. No one tells poets, songwriters and playwrights to knock it off, grow up and write a novel, but this criticism is often fired at short story writers.

Short fiction is viable, vital and vibrant. I also don’t buy all this moaning about books being dead or reading being dead. It’s defeatist for one thing. Narratives are part of humanity and so long as we’re living and breathing – though that does get more difficult every day it seems sometimes – we’ll have fiction in one form or another, short and otherwise.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Interview: Sarah Selecky

www.storyisastateofmind.com
Please tell us about your interest in the short story by
(a) telling us a bit about your recent collection (e.g., how did it come about? does it have a recurring theme? do you have a particular story or passage that's a favorite?)

I wrote the first drafts for This Cake Is for the Party when I was living in British Columbia. It took me a long time to write it - almost ten years, in fact. I kept writing drafts and letting them sit for about a year before I knew how to revise them. But then two of the stories, "How Healthy Are You?" and "Go Manchura," were both written within one year. That was an incredibly productive year for me. I still can't believe I did it.

The book wasn't "a book" until I'd finished revising almost all of the stories. I was just writing stories, one at a time, for many years. At one point I looked back at what I'd written, and I saw that many of them fit together. They were about the emotional ways people related to food. They were about people who wanted to be good and/or healthy but just couldn't figure out how to do it. They were about mental illness, and love, and fidelity (and infidelity). Seeing that - seeing that I was writing about the same thing over and over again - this was both gratifying and unsettling. Because it wasn't intentional!

I love the story "Where You Coming From, Sweetheart?" especially because it was one of the first stories I'd ever written in the collection. I started the draft of it around 1999. I reworked that draft and put it away and reworked it and trashed it and then rewrote it entirely a number of years later. So it's both the newest story in the book and the oldest story in the book.

(b) recommending a short story or collection by someone else that you admire (and why?)

I recently reread a story of Jennifer Egan's titled, "Safari." It's now a chapter of her novel-in-stories, "A Visit From the Goon Squad." I loved reading the story out of context, as a whole and solitary entity. Letting go of all of the other characters in the book, and just focusing on the moments of this story in particular - it was a thrill. Interestingly, I felt sneaky doing it this way. Almost as if I was cheating on the novel to enjoy the story so much on its own.

It says a lot about Egan's writing that she can pull this off - write a novel-in-stories with chapters that actually DO stand on their own, as short fiction. She doesn't take anything for granted - every word, every scene and image, it still has to count. No short cuts or assumptions - she builds a world and a voice from scratch in each story.

I read "Safari" in the 2010 Best American Short Stories anthology (ed. Richard Russo). One of the best things about these anthologies are the notes by contributors at the back of the book. I really try to savour these anthologies: I only read one short story every day (at the same time every morning), and then I pause to read the contributor's notes after each story.

After reading "Safari," I read Egan's notes about her process while she wrote it. Get this: she started a first draft of a story called "Safari" around 1988, but never finished it. She found it again years later, still liked something about it, but didn't do anything with it. Then, in 2008, twenty years later, she started writing another story -- and characters from that 1988 story appeared in this new story, which is now also titled, "Safari." It took her twenty years to write that story! And I believe that you can feel that, in her writing. Nothing is rushed, here - it's the real thing.

(c) telling us about Story is a State of Mind. What's it all about?

I know so many writers who struggle with writing in their life. They can't find the time, or it's hard for them to prioritize it in their life, or they're afraid of being terrible, or maybe they're afraid of what would happen if they actually DID write something good. Whatever the reason is for their resistance, the end result is unhappiness. When a writer isn't writing, he/she can experience terrible pain and longing.

I created this course to teach people how to repair their relationship to writing. It's for writers who know they’re good, or at least have a feeling that they’re good at writing, but they fear doing it anyway. Or they resist it. I made it for writers who struggle with writing itself. Writing is one activity that could potentially give them so much joy – if they just learned how to trust themselves, and teach themselves to write often and write well.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a seasoned writer, either. Every time a writer faces the blank page, it's difficult. Story Is a State of Mind is for writers who know they love to write, feel that they're called to do it, and want some support and instruction as they start writing a new story. It’s is designed especially for short fiction writers, but any writer can benefit from the methods.

It started as a wish: I was teaching my courses online in a wiki already (similar to what the Banff Wired Writing program and the UBC optional-residency MFA offers in terms of online workshopping). But there were a few problems: first, the obvious problem of time zones. Second, the problems around flexibility. Many writers came to me saying, “I wish I could take your course, but the time isn’t right for me right now.”

Then there was the issue around my own writing time. I love teaching so much. I offer writers advice and methods that are different than what academic programs offer, and I think it’s important. But if I spend all of my energy teaching, I don’t have the space and time I need to write - and then I become unhappy, too. I wished for a way to keep teaching more people what I feel most passionate about, to do it in a rich, full, motivating and interactive way, AND to still have time to write.

I looked into it, and discovered that this was not an uncommon wish. People have created successful, inspiring and educational digital programs that work this way, in different fields of study, like Chris Guillebeau and Danielle LaPorte. But nobody had created one for creative writers yet. So I did.